By Larry Wigge
When he was traded for goaltender Brian Elliott on February 18, 2011, Craig Anderson felt he had a chance in Ottawa. If he put up some numbers maybe he could make it work.
It was kind of trial and error for the potential unrestricted free-agent netminder the the next two months ...
The on-the-job-training turned into a 11-5-1 record with a 2.05 goals-against average in the finals 18 games. It was just the magic.
"We feel he's brought stability. The position is one that we need if you're going to retool, rebuild and improve this hockey club going forward," said GM Bryan Murray of a four-year, $12.75 million contract. "Craig has stepped in on our team to play the way we think we have to play. With that secure building block, now we can address some other issues.
"He was a guy that we felt we had a chance to sign. If ..."
In this year's playoffs series, which stands at 2-2, the Senators gained control of the quarterfinal round matchup against the New York Rangers.
"It was beast mode -- the come-from-behind victory," said Anderson of a 3-2 overtime victory.
"I thought he was our best player," coach Paul MacLean said. "He kept it at 2-0 and made two saves before the goal in overtime as well. I thought he was outstanding. I thought he showed great leadership and competitiveness for the team."
Craig Anderson was better than Henrik Lundvist ... yes.
Anderson could have a chip on his shoulder over never really being given an opportunity to be a No. 1 before he joined the Colorado Avalanche at the start of the 2009-10 season ... or for his first eight years in professional hockey.
Instead, he whimsically talks about the twists and turns in his life.
"If I wasn't a goalie, I'd probably be a race car driver. They only have to make left turns," Anderson laughed.
The 30-year-old netminder (he'll turn 32 on May 21) from Park Ridge, Ill., a suburb of Chicago, had some pretty good seasons in junior hockey at Guelph before the Blackhawks made him their third-round pick, 73rd overall, in the 2001 NHL Entry Draft. In his second season in the Chicago organization he posted a 15-11-5 record and a microscopic 1.94 goals-against average for Norfolk of the American Hockey League.
But as all goaltenders find out quickly, stopping pucks coming at them at 90-100 mph is more than just being the target in a shooting gallery. At just 24, Anderson was still waiting for a chance to play in the NHL midway through the 2005-06 season.
"People talk about obstacles you have to overcome in your life to get to the NHL," Anderson explained. "Mine was like playing tic-tac-toe with a travel agent for 16 days in January and early February of 2006, when I went from Chicago to Boston to St. Louis and then back to Chicago.
"It started when the Hawks put me on waivers to send me to Norfolk and I got a call at the airport telling me I should instead get on a plane to Boston. Twelve days later, I was with St. Louis for one day ... and then back to Chicago. It was easily the craziest few days of my career."
In June of that year, more twists and turns as the Blackhawks traded Craig to Florida for a sixth-round draft choice.
Anderson admitted that some folks might feel like picking up a newspaper and answer a want ad, but it doesn't work that way in sports.
"I admit there were a lot of times when I was playing behind Nikolai Khabibulin in Chicago and Tomas Vokoun in Florida where my career seemed like it was on hold, but I never lost confidence that I could play at the NHL level," Anderson observed.
Craig took the lessons he learned in watching Khabibulin and Vokoun prepare to be their best and something began to click for him. In 2007-08, he had an 8-6-1 record in his minimal opportunities behind Vokoun. But that included a .935 save percentage and two shutouts. More light began to shine on Anderson's career last season, when at times he played ahead of Vokoun in Florida and had a 15-7-5 record with three more shutouts. His .928 save percentage over the last two seasons ranked as the best in the NHL, ahead of Boston's Tim Thomas at .927.
With the Avs in 2010-11, Anderson was a dominat force. He posted a 38-25-7 record -- and he guided Colorado to a six-game playoff loss to the San Jose Sharks. But, somehow, Craig proved that was a one-season wonder. Again he was lost and headed for Ottawa.
It is often said that goaltenders mature a little later than other positions in hockey.
"The best advice I ever got was from my dad," Anderson recalled. "He always told me, 'Never say never.' And he lived that his life to those words. He was the CFO of a company that was in the business of wire and he was still racing cars in his late 30s."
Like most hockey players, the hard-working values of Richard and Holly Anderson (she was in real estate sales) and the encouragement to follow their dreams led to sports for their sons, John and Craig.
"I was your typical kid brother tagging along with my brother, who was five years older than me," Anderson said, before breaking into a wide smile. "My brother was five years older than me and I would do anything to be involved with him and his friends ... even if it meant standing in front of our garage being the goalie and taking shots off my head."
And this wasn't just some pickup by average athletes. John Anderson was drafted as a middle infielder by the Boston Red Sox and played a number of years in Class A ball.
While looks may be deceiving sometimes, goaltenders are a strange breed. And off the ice, Anderson hardly looks like Colorado's latest best chance to find a solid puckstopper. He's 30, he's follically-impaired and he looks like a tall (at 6-2) and skinny man incapable of replacing a Patrick Roy.
"I learned a long time ago that you can't try to be someone else or replace a legend like Patrick," Anderson said, eyes focused on what he has to do to keep his No. 1 job in Colorado. "You have to prove yourself everyday at this level. There are no free passes."
Anderson would never presume to put himself in the same light as Patrick Roy, when, in fact, he grew up watching and idolizing the kick saves of Grant Fuhr and Roy.
"Watching those two great goaltenders gave me the itch to be a goaltender," Anderson continued. "And fighting to keep my dream of getting a chance to show I could be an NHL goalie made me stronger mentally."
And auto racing? You remember the left turns he's taken in his career.
"I've still got the itch for that, too," he said. "But it's not as strong as proving to everyone that I can be consistent as a No. 1 goaltender in the NHL and keep the Avs in every game this season."
More twists and turns can wait for Craig Anderson's auto racing career long after he's finished with hockey.